Why Do We Intentionally Scare Ourselves?

Why creepiness and horror can be seductive

Posted Oct 08, 2019

Shutterstock Used With Permission
Source: Shutterstock Used With Permission

As Halloween approaches, it is once again time to reflect on the perversity of why we humans pay good money to scare the bejeezus out of ourselves, and why we invented a holiday that mandates that we do it at least once per year.

Given how easily creeped out we are by haunted houses and other spooky places, why would we ever intentionally expose ourselves to them? How have commercial haunted houses, with an estimated 5,000 such attractions operating in the United States each year, become an integral part of 21st-century Halloween theatre, and why do horror movies gross billions of dollars per year?

Although the frightening, negative experience of horror is apparent to everyone, it must be acknowledged that under some circumstances creepiness and horror can be seductive, as evidenced by the sums of money we spend each year on the "scare attractions" mentioned above. Clearly, for many people, the creepy can have a peculiar “allure.”

How could such things possibly be entertaining to us?

I propose that our enjoyment of commercial haunted houses and horror movies taps into the same evolved psychological mechanisms that exist to help us learn from the experiences of others.

For example, it has been argued elsewhere that we have evolved an intense interest in gossip because a strong evolutionary advantage accrued to those who stayed abreast of the private affairs of allies and enemies alike. People who kept up with the scuttlebutt of the tribe knew who had powerful friends and who did not and who was sleeping with whom, and hence were poised to exploit openings that would be advantageous to them and to avoid fighting battles that they could not win. These people became socially successful, and it is the genes of these busybodies that have come down to us through the ages.

Ordinarily, we are most interested in people who are known to us personally, but we can also be quite interested in stories about strangers who have survived extraordinary mishaps such as shark attacks or airplane crashes, and we can become similarly intrigued by stories about very successful people. In other words, our interest in “Strategy Learning Gossip” is driven by the evolutionary advantages of learning survival and success strategies vicariously through the experiences of others.

Our enjoyment of haunted houses and horror movies may tap into the same evolved psychological mechanisms as strategy-learning gossip, so finding ourselves drawn to horror stories may have real benefits.

In the safety of a movie theater, watching others deal with serial killers or paranormal threats allows us to mentally rehearse strategies that we might use if we would ever find ourselves in a similar situation. At such films, it is not at all uncommon to hear gasps from the audience as a character begins to open the door to that room or to hide in a very inopportune place. And so, we may feel better prepared for creepy encounters because we have seen what happens to others in harrowing circumstances.

Shutterstock Used With Permission
The Scream
Source: Shutterstock Used With Permission

Similarly, walking through a commercial haunted house can provide relevant feedback about ourselves. It might be useful to know which types of things are scary to us and which are not, and examining our emotional reactions to unsettling experiences may help us gauge our level of preparedness for dealing with paranormal encounters. This, in turn, might tell us which strategies might work best for us if such an eerie real-life encounter should ever occur.

So yes, horror can be fun if it is not the real thing, and it may help prepare us for the next serial killer, the Zombie Apocalypse, or whatever other horrors may await us.